SUNDERLAND stopper Simon Mignolet locks horns with fellow countrymen Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas when the Black Cats travel to bogey ground Goodison Park this weekend.
The trio are part of a renaissance of Belgian football, which has seen a conveyor belt of players head across the Channel and succeed in the Premier League.
CHRIS YOUNG spoke to Mignolet about the reasons behind the rich crop of Belgian talent and why they are becoming increasingly attractive recruits for top-flight managers.
CONDUCT a straw poll on Sunderland’s stand-out performer of the campaign so far and it would be a landslide victory.
There would be a cluster of votes for Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Cattermole and possibly Danny Rose, yet there would surely be an overwhelming winner.
Simon Mignolet is one of few Black Cats players to have lived up to expectations, registering three clean sheets out of nine and denying Kevin Nolan, Arouna Koné and Robert Huth with jaw-dropping saves.
Mignolet may be a modest figure and one who largely goes under the radar outside the North East, but Martin O’Neill clearly recognises the worth of his stopper.
“He’s been as good as anyone in the Premier League this season,” said the Sunderland boss last month.
Yet Mignolet finds himself restricted to the supporting cast by his country, confined to the bench for all four games of Belgium’s World Cup qualifying campaign so far.
It’s not a snub to Mignolet, merely a sign of the riches at the disposal of national team boss Marc Wilmots.
Those tired gags about naming a famous Belgian beyond Jean-Claude Van Damme, Hercule Poirot and Tintin have suddenly become an antiquated concept.
These days it’s the footballing giants of Fellaini, Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard who emerge as the household names.
And it’s Mignolet paying the price for the emergence of this bountiful crop, with Athletico Madrid’s on-loan Chelsea stopper Thibault Courtois preferred to the Sunderland man as Belgium number one.
Mignolet is not alone in seeing his international opportunities limited.
Cast a glance at the bench for Belgium’s last outing against Scotland and the former St Truiden stopper was joined among the substitutes by two of the Premier League’s stand-out performers so far this season, in Hazard and Kevin Mirallas.
So what is behind this generation of Belgian talent?
Well, it doesn’t stem from a coherent plan on behalf of the country’s governing body, as neighbours France did with their famed Clairefontaine academy.
Approval was given for a national football centre in the town of Tubize, on the outskirts of Brussels, after Belgium hosted the 2000 European Championships.
But it took five years for a brick to be laid at the site and still a ball hasn’t been kicked there. St George’s Park isn’t the only facility to be hampered by bureaucratic bungles after all.
Mignolet doesn’t believe there is one predominant reason for the raft of talent, attributing it to “just a coincidence of a bunch of good players coming through at the same time”.
But there has been a heavy investment in youth among Belgium’s top-flight sides.
Standard Liege spent more than £14million on their academy five years ago and have produced two players who will look to extend Sunderland’s 16-year winless streak at Goodison Park this weekend.
Marouane Fellaini has emerged as one of the Premier League’s most dominant midfielders since moving to Everton from Liege in a £15million deal in 2008.
But compatriot Kevin Mirallas has continued Everton’s success with Belgian recruits.
Mirallas, who topped the scoring charts in Greece last season with 20 goals for Olympiakos, has proved an immediate hit at Goodison, helping the Toffees to an uncharacteristically impressive start to the campaign.
Mignolet will be standing in his way on Saturday, yet has seen on international duty the strengths of Everton’s £5.5million summer recruit.
“Fellaini is one of the best players in the Belgium squad and he’s done really well for Everton as well,” said Mignolet.
“But with Miralles, he played in Greece where you don’t see much of the games.
“I only know him from the last couple of games with Belgium, but what he’s shown in training is that he’s a good finisher.
“He’s shown that already with Everton too, after scoring a few goals.
“He’s not really playing up front – more on the wing, as his normal position would be as a deep striker.
“But he’s only young and he’s a very good player.
“I never played with him at Under-21 level – he’s a couple of years older than me.
“But he’s known for being as a good finisher because in the seasons he played in Greece, he always scored more than double figures.”
Mignolet believes the success of his countrymen has made Premier League managers more prepared to take a chance on young Belgian talent.
He cites the example of 21-year-old frontman Christian Benteke, who inflicted a £7m dent in Aston Villa’s bank balance during the summer.
Benteke was largely an unknown on these shores after only emerging at Genk last season, yet the frontman showed his prowess last weekend with a towering display for Paul Lambert’s men in their 1-0 victory at the Stadium of Light.
Mignolet said: “The likes of Benteke came out of nowhere. I don’t think the journalists knew who he was before he arrived at Aston Villa.
“If you see what he can do now, with the way he played against us on Saturday, it shows there’s a lot of talent in Belgium.
“Now people are rating Belgian players, it’s giving them the chance to show what they can do in a bigger league.
“They’ve got far more of a platform than they would have in Belgium.
“With the likes of (Vincent) Kompany, (Thomas) Vermaelen and then Fellaini, they showed they could do the job in England.
“Now the English teams tend to accept that there’s a chance for Belgium players to come over and be successful.”
The upshot of the influx of Belgian talent into the Premier League has been a major boost of their hopes on the international stage.
Belgium currently top their World Cup qualifying group on goal difference from Croatia after taking 10 points from their opening four games.
And that return has put Belgium on course to reach their first major tournament since 2002 after only finishing third in their qualifying group for last summer’s European Championships.
Mignolet added: “It’s only a good thing for us that the players are in big teams like Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.
“It gives us extra confidence and experience when you have to play the likes of Serbia and Croatia away. It can only help us.”